A project is underway in Niger to increase cowpea production by improving
farming techniques. The effort is called the Gatsby Crop-Livestock Project,
named after the London-based organization that is providing funding for the
effort. Among the implementers of the project is Niger's National Institute of
Agronomic Research, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, or
IITA, and the US Peace Corps.
in Niger is being hindered by a lack of arable land, poor crop varieties and
outdated farming methods. About 80 percent of Niger's people are subsistence
farmers and herders who use fallow farming techniques to grow cowpea. In this
system, the land remains unplanted for a period of time so nutrients needed for
healthy plants can regenerate in the soil. The system does not allow for the
rapid growth of crops.
plant cowpea among crops with leaves that provide too much shade and thus
impede its growth. The older cowpea varieties are also susceptible to a
parasitic plant called striga, which competes with the food crop for moisture and nutrients. Dr. Hakeem Ajeigbe is the Gatsby Crop and Livestock project
coordinator at IITA in Nigeria. He mentions another challenge faced by farmers,
"Fertilizer is not available in the quantity required in Nigeria, Niger or
anywhere in Africa. But we need fertilizer, so we are now teaching [farmers] how
to use their livestock to generate manure."
But the new
project by the IITA and the Ministry of Agriculture is working to turn the
situation around. Dr. Hakeem says IITA
scientists are introducing better yielding strains of cowpea that take 65 to 70
days to mature – nearly half the time of old varieties. They are also resistant
to striga. He says farmers are taught
how to enhance regular commercial fertilizers. The animals eat crop residue for
60 to 70 days and generate manure that will be used to provide nutrients to the
soil. The farmer digs a hole about 10 cm from the plant and puts a small amount
of manure in it. This method, called
spot application, reduces the amount of chemical fertilizers needed. Dr. Hakeem
says the IITA livestock project includes improved farming methods,"We have
brought a new system, the strip cropping system, whereby the farmers can plant
either one or two rows of cereals: four rows of cowpea. This creates a window
for cowpea because with these four rows shading is minimized."
Kiri Saidon is a soil scientist at an institution also involved in the effort,
the National Institute of Agronomic Research of Niger (INRAN). He says Peace
Corps volunteers from the United States will help train farmers in the regions
of Maradi and Zinder in the new farming techniques and application of the new
seed varieties. The collaboration is more on the transfer of technology working
with the peace corps volunteers. They serve as a link
between the project and farmers in the villages. IITA is also helping with funds,
new technologies, and some aspects of research.
produces nearly 700,000 tons of cowpea each year, making it the world's second
largest producer, after Nigeria. It's the country's main agricultural export. It's
also an indispensable part of the family diet, eaten as bean cakes and bean
pudding. As West Africa's population grows, so does the demand for improved
crops of the well-loved cowpea.